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Personnel note: Kristen McDonald headed to Hill+Knowlton

Kristen McDonald, who’s been communications director for the Florida House Republicans, is heading to Hill+Knowlton Strategies‘ Tallahassee office.

The move was announced Wednesday.

She joins another House staffer now there: H+K vice president Ryan Duffy, who was chief spokesman for former House Speaker Will Weatherford in 2012-14.


McDonald was communications director for the Office of the Majority Leader in the Florida House of Representatives from 2012-16, serving under three different leaders: state Rep. Steve Precourt, current House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, and current Majority Leader Dana Young.

Before that, McDonald was press secretary for the Republican Party of Florida during the 2012 election cycle, including the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

“By bringing Kristen on board, we are further bolstering Hill+Knowlton’s strong presence in Florida,” said Harry Costello, H+K Florida general manager and executive vice president, in a statement.

“Kristen’s experience in the Florida Legislature and previous work with the Republican Party of Florida broadens our public affairs footprint in the state,” he added.

She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from Florida State University.

In 2014, McDonald was named a “30 Under 30 Rising Stars in Florida Politics” in SaintPetersblog.

McDonald joins a public affairs team led by Alia Faraj-Johnson, senior vice president and Florida Public Affairs practice leader.

She also will work with Ron Bartlett, deputy general manager and former public affairs leader; Susan Thurston, senior account executive; and Bob Lotane, senior consultant.

Other hires include Julie Borm, a former health industry communications director, who joins the H+K Florida Health and Corporate Communications practice.

Two new H+K fellows are Trip Farmer, based in Tallahassee, who’ll provide “support for research, media outreach, and legislative issue tracking for public affairs clients,” and Alison Spiegel, based in Tampa, who most recently worked as an intern at Bascom Communications & Consulting in Tallahassee.

James Madison Institute announces top under-40 Florida leaders for 2015

The James Madison Institute released its 2015 Leaders Fellowship list Wednesday, featuring more than 100 under-40 leaders from across the Sunshine State.

The JMI Leaders Fellowship is a yearlong program designed to network young leaders and educate them on key public policy issues and the impact they have on the state’s economic development. The Tallahassee-based think tank started the program last year, and JMI CEO Dr. Bob McClure said applications “flooded in” for the second class.

The fellowship has representation in the Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando, Palm Beach and Miami regions, though McClure said JMI hopes the program grows to include more regions.

Among the names on the list are Hill+Knowlton VP Ryan Duffy, Strategic Access Group’s Evan Power, Americans for Prosperity Deputy State Director Skylar Zander, Department of Business and Professional Regulation legislative affairs director David Mica Jr., and Toby Philpot, the chief of staff for the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration.

Vance Aloupis, one of the founders of the fellowship, said the program develops smart ideas and strong leadership.

“In every way through this fellowship, JMI has filled a void in which young professionals who believe in the ideals of the free market can discuss ideas, grow professionally and most importantly, build long-lasting relationships.”

In addition to his role on the fellowship’s executive committee, Aloupis works as the statewide director for the Children’s Movement of Florida, an organization chaired by legendary retired Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr. that advocates for increased investments in early childhood education.

The fellowship’s executive committee also includes Chester Spellman, a veteran of the nonprofit sector who has headed up Volunteer Florida since 2012. Adam Giery of Strategos Group is the regional leader for Tampa and Glen Gilzean, the interim president for Central Florida Urban League, is the Orlando-area leader.

Personnel note: Hill+Knowlton Strategies Florida promotes Ron Bartlett, Alia Faraj-Johnson

Hill+Knowlton Strategies (H+K) is promoting Ron Bartlett to deputy general manager of H+K’s Florida operations. Alia Faraj-Johnson is also moving up to lead the firm’s Florida public affairs practice.

Bartlett, an H+K senior vice president, most recently served as head of the Florida public relations practice, the company’s largest state-based public affairs practice. Faraj-Johnson served as senior vice president in the company’s Tallahassee office.

“With Florida’s dynamic political and communications landscape, it made so much sense to promote Ron and Alia – two members of the H+K Strategies team who have made an impact not only in Florida, but nationally through their sound advice and efforts on behalf of our clients,” said H+K CEO Mike Coates, in a prepared statement.

The firm also announced the addition of Susan Thurston as new senior account executive in the Tampa office. Thurston will join Ryan Duffy and Bob Lotane, each an H+K Tallahassee vice president, as its core public affairs team.

Bartlett is a 20-year veteran reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida, including 11 years with The Tampa Tribune, becoming Tallahassee Capitol bureau chief. While at The Tribune, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for a series of investigative stories on the Florida Marine Patrol.

Bartlett recently celebrated 15 years at H+K, during which he won several state and national industry awards, including a 2008 Gold Sabre and a 2007 Silver Sabre from The Holmes Report, as well as a 2005 Silver Anvil from the Public Relations Society of America.

Prior to joining H+K in 2000, Bartlett was communications director of the Florida Residential Property and Casualty Joint Underwriting Association in Tallahassee.

Faraj-Johnson brings more than 25 years’ experience as a veteran communicator, serving as former Gov. Jeb Bush’s press secretary and communications director from 2002 to 2007. In her role as chief spokesperson, she supervised communications for 18 state agencies, including the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Health, and the Agency for Health Care Administration. Faraj-Johnson also served as deputy chief of staff at the Florida Department of State during the 2014 election cycle and as chief spokesperson during Florida’s 2004 and 2005 back-to-back hurricane seasons.

With more than a decade in television journalism, Faraj-Johnson is a multiple Emmy Award-winning producer, a 2009 winner of the national PR News Legal PR Award for media relations during litigation or crisis, and a winner of the Bronze Bulldog Award the same year for best crisis communications. She is currently a two-term gubernatorial appointee on the Florida Elections Commission and a member of Leadership Florida Class XXVI.

Thurston has more than 25 years of writing and journalism experience, joining H+K most recently from the Tampa Bay Times as a reporter and editor, covering retail and business news.

New hunt for oil in Florida raises environmental concerns

Renewed hunts for oil in sensitive Florida ecosystems have environmental groups raising questions about the state’s regulation of the oil and gas industry.

A Miami company, Kanter Real Estate LLC, has submitted a permit application to drill an exploratory oil well on the eastern edge of the Everglades.

Meanwhile, federal approval is pending for a seismic survey meant to locate new areas for drilling in the Big Cypress National Preserve, a freshwater swamp whose health is vital to the neighboring Everglades and to native wildlife, including the endangered Florida panther.

The state recently issued a wetlands activity permit to Fort Worth, Texas-based Burnett Oil Co. Inc. for the survey that would cover 110 square miles within the preserve. Florida and the National Park Service are requiring a number of steps to ensure minimal harm to wildlife and the environment, but the proposal worries critics who have complained that lax oversight of previous drilling operations left ecologically sensitive areas vulnerable to contamination.

From 2012 to 2014, Florida issued three environmental violations for oil and gas operations in the state, according to violations data analyzed by The Associated Press.

The three violations occurred in 2014 after Collier County officials raised concerns about another Texas oil company’s use of a fracking-like oil recovery practice at a well near panther habitat.

The Department of Environmental Protection – the state’s oil and gas regulator – say the number doesn’t show lax law enforcement, but rather that Florida’s strict inspections keep well operators in compliance.

“During the 2014 calendar year, DEP’s inspectors conducted 2,472 inspections on the 160 active wells in the state. Due to the frequency of these inspections, potential problems are identified and remedied before a violation occurs or a compliance action is required,” said DEP spokeswoman Lauren Engel said in a statement.

Environmental groups argue that Florida’s regulations currently only cover conventional drilling methods, not the “acid stimulation” that prompted last year’s violations or other advanced extraction techniques.

“We’ve learned that Florida’s oil and gas laws are extremely antiquated and rudimentary and don’t address new techniques such as fracking,” said Jennifer Hecker, director of natural resource policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Drilling has been a part of the Big Cypress since before it became a national preserve in 1974. The first wells were dug in the 1940s, and drilling continues to this day, as new technologies may improve the efficiency of extracting oil from deposits running underground from Fort Myers to Miami.

The Burnett survey would be scheduled for Florida’s winter dry season and produce vibrations created by plates attached to thumper trucks driving across a grid.

The state has gone on record opposing some methods of seismic testing, but it has not objected to the Burnett project.

DEP sent a letter to the Obama administration opposing new rules allowing seismic surveys for oil and gas off the state’s Atlantic coast because not enough was known about the surveys’ effects on marine life. The seismic survey in the Big Cypress, however, has to comply with Florida laws, said Engel.

“With onshore seismic, we have regulatory authority through this permitting program,” she said.

Burnett says it’s prepared to address concerns about the survey’s environmental impact. The wetlands activity permit issued by DEP requires the company to restore “using hand tools” any habitat damaged by the survey vehicles, and it encourages crews to remove any invasive plant species they encounter.

The survey trucks’ wide, balloon tires will be less damaging than off-road vehicle tires, said Burnett spokesman Ryan Duffy.

The survey would cover an area between active well fields in the eastern and northwestern parts of the preserve, far from recreational areas. In addition to the state permit, the park service could impose additional stipulations on Burnett to mitigate any environmental damage, said Ron Clark, the preserve’s chief resource manager.

Drilling has been a rarity east of the Big Cypress. In 1985, a Texas company drilled in western Broward County, but that well was plugged and abandoned the same year, according to DEP.

The Kanter permit application calls for a 5-acre operation to drill down 11,800 feet.

In a statement, John Kanter said the application is “one of the first steps in a long-term plan that includes proposed mining, as well as water storage and water quality improvement components that have the potential for assisting with Everglades Restoration.”

His family has owned the Broward County property slated for exploratory drilling for over 50 years. “As stewards of this land, we are fully invested in ensuring this project provides maximum public benefit while also providing Florida with solutions for water storage and treatment in South Florida,” he said.

Environmental groups and some local elected officials say any drilling expansion threatens the region’s water supply and Everglades restoration plans.

“Florida law asks the driller to do the best job possible, but it doesn’t say you can’t drill for oil in wetlands, in the Everglades, in panther habitat,” said Matt Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.

In Miramar, the city 5 miles from the where Kanter wants to drill, the mayor and city commission recently voted to oppose the plan because of the threat to their drinking water.

Bonita Springs is over 30 miles from the Big Cypress and hasn’t been a target for drilling, but the city council last week unanimously approved an ordinance banning fracking within city limits.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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